Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sven Degrees of Separation: How did we get to the point we're at with Baertschi?

It feels like longer but it was just three summers ago that Calgary Flames fans were basking in the wake of a refreshing change of direction at the NHL draft. Jay Feaster, having just taken over the general manager reins from Darryl Sutter, showed an affinity for speed and skill over size in using three of Calgary's first four picks on highly talented, creative, but small forwards.

Of that trio, which included Finnish centre Markus Granlund in the second round and tiny but gifted left-winger John Gaudreau in round four, the real excitement was around 13th overall pick Sven Baertschi. Born in Switzerland, the left-winger was coming off a superb regular season with Portland (34-51-85 in 66 games) -- his first season in North America, which was followed by an even better playoff performance (10-17-27 in 21 games) as Baertschi, along with teammate Ryan Johansen, helped lead the Winterhawks to the Western Hockey League final, where they would lose out to Kootenay.

During Sutter's eight years as GM, it could be argued the only legitimate 'skilled' forward the Flames successfully drafted and developed was 2007 first round pick Mikael Backlund and back in the summer of 2011, the jury was still very much out on him as he was coming off an underwhelming 10-goal rookie season.


Excitement Builds

As it turned out, the buzz around Baertschi was just getting started. It would reach a feverish pitch the next season after he turned in an even better year in the WHL and in the process accomplished something that hadn't been done in over a decade-and-a-half and hasn't been done since.

In 2011-12, Baertschi averaged a stunning two points per game, finishing with 33-61-94 in 47 games. That remarkable regular season remains the only time in the WHL in the last 17 years that a player has finished the year with twice as many points as games played (while playing a minimum of 40 games). Jordan Eberle never pulled that off. Neither did Patrick Marleau or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jamie Benn or Ryan Getzlaf. Nor did Sam Reinhart or even Calgary Hitmen legend Pavel Brendl, for that matter.

In fact, turn your gaze out East and the last guy to accomplish that feat in the Ontario Hockey League was John Tavares, who did it seven years ago. The last guy before him? Some dude named Patrick Kane.

In the typically higher-scoring QMJHL, only two players have done it recently with one of them having done so in each of the past two years. His name is Jonathan Drouin and chances are you've also heard of him.

For good measure as Portland went all the way to the WHL final again in 2012 -- only to lose again, Baertschi wrapped up his impressive junior career by going a scintillating 14-20-34 in 22 playoff games.

So after all that excitement and so much promise, where did things go wrong? How did we get to this point we are today where Baertschi's future with the organization is very much a question mark? Not long ago viewed as potentially one of the best players on the Flames, now he's not even considered by some as one of the club's top prospects.

Here is a look back at seven things that have happened between draft day and today, which I feel have contributed to the current mess we're in.


Sven Degrees of Separation 


1. March 7-17, 2012

The Flames were banged up and desperate. Big time desperate. Calgary sat two points out of a playoff spot but forwards Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak, Mikael Backlund, Blake Comeau, Tim Jackman and Lance Bouma were all injured and Greg Nemisz, Krys Kolanos and Guillaume Desbiens had already been summoned from Abbotsford. Needing another forward, Feaster decided his best option for his next reinforcement was leveraging the seldom-used emergency recall option so on Mar. 7, he called up Baertschi from junior.

Held off the score sheet in his NHL debut against Winnipeg at the Saddledome, Baertschi scored his first NHL goal in his next game in Minnesota. What a moment. He then proceeded to score in each of the next two games as well to make it a three-game goals streak for the kid, who was not yet 18-and-a-half years old. Lauded with headlines like 'Svensational', Baertschi was suddenly the toast of the city. Fans loved him.

However, just like when you were 12 years old and you met that cute girl while you were on vacation with your parents, it was a short fling that had no chance of lasting. Stempniak's return from an ankle injury meant on Mar. 17, 11 days after he arrived, Baertschi had to be returned to Portland.

At the time, it was hoped this early exposure to the NHL and his offensive success might help Baertschi in the long run. However, in hindsight, it seems the unrealistic expectations that came with it -- both for fans and more so for Baertschi himself, ended up being the worst possible outcome.


2. April 13-25, 2013

Baertschi spent the 2012-13 NHL lockout in the AHL where he got off to a terrific start going 6-11-17 in the first 19 games for Abbotsford. Then he suffered a spine-related head/neck injury that knocked him out of the line-up for over a month. He returned to the Heat for a couple games in January before re-joining Calgary when the lockout ended and drawing into the line-up for the Jan. 20 season opener.

It was in game four that Baertschi suffered a hip flexor injury that cost him 11 games. Upon his return to the Flames line-up, he was not getting a lot of ice time and after six games, Baertschi was demoted to Abbotsford. In those 10 NHL games, he had accumulated just one assist.

Having got his game going again, and with the Heat eliminated from playoff contention, and with roster spots available in Calgary after the trading away of Jarome Iginla and Comeau, Baertschi was called back up again on April 7. In his first game, he logged 18:15 in ice time and played much of the night on a line with Mike Cammalleri.

Getting steady ice time every night, Baertschi finished the season on a tear, racking up an impressive seven-game points streak (3 goals, 6 assists). Things were good for Baertschi. Plus, with Calgary's perennial leading scorer gone, the club and its fan base was looking for someone new to lead the team offensively and why not Baertschi considering his sparkling resume. Frequent water cooler conversation that off-season centred around who would lead the Flames in scoring in 2013-14. In fact, in this story, I predicted it would be Baertschi from the list of 11 possible candidates.

If there's a lesson to be learned in all this it's that thriving in April when there's no pressure on the team -- the Flames were far removed from playoff contention, and when you're mostly playing teams in the same boat so also deploying line-ups laden with rookies, is success that you do need to temper when it comes to setting future expectations.


3. April 26, 2013

The final game of the season was in Chicago and Baertschi would end up missing that one with a groin injury picked up the night before in St. Louis. Little did we know at the time the significant ripple effect that injury would have.

First, it forced Baertschi to reluctantly turn down an invitation to play for Switzerland at the IIHF World Championships in May. While it is a tournament that is viewed as no big deal here in North America, it's the opposite in Europe where it's very important. Making matters worse, Baertschi would end up missing out on an amazing Cinderella run for Switzerland that was not unlike the Flames 2004 Stanley Cup run was around Calgary. An extreme underdog, the Swiss went all the way to the final before losing the gold medal game to Sweden.

Then, hoping to recapture that same magic in the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Swiss stuck with mostly that same roster -- 19 players from the WC team were part of the team that went to Sochi. That left Baertschi once again out in the cold, missing a golden opportunity to gain valuable confidence and experience by playing on a big stage against the best players in the world.


4. September 5-8, 2013

Each September, prior to Calgary's main training camp, the prospects report to rookie camp. It's a busy week, which culminates in a tournament in Penticton, B.C. and games against prospects from the Oilers and the Canucks. It's dubbed the Young Stars tournament and with more NHL experience than anyone else going into last year's event, Baertschi should have been one of the stars of that camp.

But it didn't turn out that way.

Baertschi did not shine -- held without a point in three games. His lackluster play was criticized and his attitude was questioned. While it's true he never got to play with the Flames premium talent in Sean Monahan, Markus Granlund or Emile Porier, instead lining up with the likes of Coda Gordon (no longer in the organization) and Josh Jooris, he also didn't exactly earn such a plum assignment either. After the tournament, Abbotsford head coach Troy Ward, who led the camp, didn't mince words.

“There’s no question, when Sven has the puck or he’s in support of the puck and has someone that can support it with him, Sven’s a really good player,” said Ward. “One of the things he has to continue to learn as a young man is continue to play hard and go get it back. That’s his development right now."

Was Baertschi miffed that he was invited to a 'rookie camp' despite having 25 NHL games on his resume? Although still considered a rookie by NHL standards, that sure was the prevailing feeling you got. I relate it to a 15-year-old boy being forced by his parents to take his 10-year-old sister out Halloweening. The impression Baertschi left was that he wasn't motivated.

How that tournament played out for Baertschi was a disaster and he left Penticton with a tarnished reputation that he has yet to repair.


5. September 30, 2013

On Monday morning, three days prior to the Flames regular season opener in Washington, Calgary media assembled at the Saddledome for the traditional start-of-the-year state-of-the-nation address to be delivered by Brian Burke, who was less than four weeks into his role as President of Hockey Operations.

It was a pretty nondescript presser for the most part, the most interesting things being Burke's seemingly endless array of unique and colourful expressions that always keep a room amused. But then Baertschi's name came up in a question and Burke was not shy to share his first impression.

Asked what he thought of Baertschi so far, he responded, "That I don’t know. I’m not sure. All I’ve seen so far is flashes of brilliance. Flashes of brilliance are fine if you’re working in the university, but they’re not much good to people in an NHL building."

He wasn't done.

“There are three zones in the ice surfaces in this league. I don’t see that he’s learned to play and compete in two of them. He’s got to learn there’s a clock in this league and there’s so many minutes in the game and that you’ve got to compete through all of it. What I see is a guy who’s focusing on one area and even then, sporadically,” said Burke. “So I don’t know what we have."

He still wasn't done.

“I’m not ready to quit on a young kid. I’m not ready to throw him under the bus here today and rip him, but I think you can tell from my comments that I see big holes and I see a lack of commitment that’s not going to get him anywhere in my books.”

Baertschi made the Flames season-opening roster. But many were already wondering how long he'd last. Meanwhile, as for the answer to how long it would take for Baertschi to move past such pointed and public criticism? I don't think we have the answer to that one yet.


6. December 12, 2013

It was a day that seemed inevitable as soon as Burke joined the Flames organization on Sept. 5. Sure enough, just over three months after being hired to oversee Feaster, Burke fired Feaster.

Up until that point, Baertschi had been up with the Flames and while he looked just fine at times, he struggled to consistently get meaningful ice time from coach Bob Hartley, who stuck him on the fourth line some nights and four times made him a healthy scratch. But with Feaster's departure also came Baertschi's as Burke demoted him to the AHL as his first order of business as the club's interim GM.

Back in the AHL where some argued he should have been from the start of the season, Baertschi struggled to find his way initially. In his first 15 games, he managed only two goals and two assists. The points eventually came as he strung together a couple five-game point streaks and a six-gamer as well, but you never got the impression he ever got back in the organization's good books.

Occasionally, Ward would touch on modest improvements in Baertschi's much ballyhooed 'three-zone play' but he never gushed praise, that's for sure. When Baertschi did get hot offensively -- he erupted for a seven-point weekend in a two-game series with Rockford late in the season, Ward seemed more determined to credit his linemates than the left winger himself.

Tough love? No kidding.

Baertschi also wasn't a factor in the AHL playoffs and the Heat could have really used some offensive spark from him. Coming off their best ever regular season and poised for a long run behind the standout goaltending of Joni Ortio, the Heat instead succumbed to Grand Rapids in four games in the opening round best-of-five. Just like that, it was season over with Baertschi limping to the finish line with just a single assist over his final seven games.


7. May 9, 2014

What an opportunity this year's World Championships was going to be. Sean Monahan was going to be there. Johnny Gaudreau was going to be there. Mikael Backlund was going to be there. Most importantly for Baertschi, so was newly hired Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who was an assistant GM with Team Canada. It was the perfect opportunity for Baertschi to turn the page on what had been a miserable and frustrating year and leave a solid first impression on Calgary's new decision maker.

Knowing what was at stake and how badly Baertschi and his fragile confidence really needed something good to happen, you had to feel for the kid when halfway through Switzerland's opening game against Russia, he went down with a fractured rib. That injury that sent him to hospital would knock him out of the tournament. Seven minutes and five seconds of ice time. Ten shifts. That was it for Baertschi, a horrible but fitting way to wrap up a very challenging and mettle-testing 12 months.


Looking Forward

Earlier this spring, it was announced that Baertschi's jersey number was changing from '47' to '27'. I wouldn't read too much into it but maybe, just maybe, it's a positive sign of what will be a much better year. Although, it's hard to imagine a year going much worse.

With so many already focused on the 2015 draft, hoping that the Flames will be ready to turn the corner quickly on the rebuild if they can add just one more high-end first round draft pick to the organization, you tend to forget that they have a pretty darn good first round pick right under their nose in Baertschi, and he's already here.

Maybe it's because of that initial five-game stint three years ago but you tend to forget that Baertschi is still only 21 years old. There are only three players drafted after him in 2011 that have more points. He's far from a bust yet.

A good comparable for Baertschi is Minnesota's Nino Niederreiter. In fact, their similarities are down-right spooky.
  • Nearly identical in age -- Niederreiter is less than a month older
  • Both play left-wing
  • Both played two years in the WHL with Portland
  • Both are from Switzerland
  • Both were first round picks -- Niederreiter was 5th overall in 2010

In their most compelling similarity, you could also argue both were in the NHL too early. Drafted by the Islanders, Niederreiter went straight to the NHL as an 18-year-old and had a disastrous season. A prolific scorer in junior and coming off a year with the Winterhawks in which he scored 41 goals and had 70 points in 55 games, Niederreiter amassed all of one goal and no assists in 55 games during his rookie season in New York. Oh ya, and he was a minus-29.

Niederreiter spent all of 2012-13 in the AHL and after being acquired last summer by the Wild in a trade for Cal Clutterbuck, Niederreiter had a nice year in his return to the NHL and I thought played his best hockey of his career in last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Not yet 22 years old, he's suddenly back on track to being the player everyone once thought he would be. 

It goes to show that having patience, while it can be excruciating when you're dealing with such immense talents that you can't wait to see put on your favourite team's jersey, can really pay off in the end.


So How Will it End?

Whether a similar bounce-back will happen in Calgary with Baertschi is one of the more compelling story lines to follow in the year ahead. It would come as a shock to nobody if instead, Baertschi is shuttled out of town in a trade. Everyone knows the Flames desire to get bigger and with Gaudreau on the scene now -- and also a natural left-winger, is their room in the line-up for both him and Baertschi? 

Now I think there is. First, remember the shortage of right-wingers on this club. A couple of port-siders will have to switch over and play on the right instead so that opens up some additional options. Secondly, Baertschi does have the ability to play with a bit of an edge. Considering the year he just suffered through, you would sure hope he'll come to camp in September fired up, angry and ready to play hard. 

When he was hired, Treliving made a point of saying every player in the organization can look at his arrival as GM as a fresh start. He insisted that every player would begin with a clean slate. Nobody needs that clean slate more than Baertschi. Now we'll see if he rolls up his sleeves and embraces it.

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    2 comments:

    1. Excellent post as always - great insight.

      Similarities to Niederreiter situation are quite pronounced: high-flying junior scorer, does well in a brief end-of-seasion audition, then under-performs when handed a larger role out of camp the next year. Gets the leash snapped back a bit and subsequently requests a trade (which is the only place wherein the two stories differ - so far). You can see the difference it makes when a player commits to learning to do the little things properly within a more structured system, as Niederreiter really is back on track.

      I'm hoping Baertschi can put it all together, but the rockstar attitude bit at rookie camp really set off some alarms for me. Certainly doesn't show the kind of character he's going to need to compete as a somewhat undersized forward in the NHL. To succeed he's going to need sheltered minutes and a long leash, and I don't see Hartley giving those to him (particularly when there's a number of harder-working foot-soldier types looking for those same minutes).

      I don't get the chance to see every game, but from what I have seen Baertschi really needs to work on his first few strides. Seemed to me as soon as he received the puck last season he was getting swarmed, then getting flustered and either giving the puck away or simply dumping it in. Hopefully he'll have worked on that explosiveness and gained some strength over the past year, as he's going to need both to create a bit more space for himself.

      For me he's dropped somewhere around number 4-5 in terms of forward prospects (behind Gaudreau, Bennett, Poirier, and potentially Granlund and Reinhart), which honestly isn't a horrible thing from a depth standpoint.

      Not sure what he'd fetch as part of a trade, but if it isn't a 23-28 year-old physical defender with good wheels, I'm not interested...yet.

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      1. I agree that he has fallen off the prospect radar a bit and I also agree that this is maybe a good thing. It wasn't long ago, he was the prize prospect because there was little else. That's not the case any more and hopefully he'll be motivated to reclaim that title. He's still very young so patience is important. Whether or not he's a long term fit here remains to be seen but if he can have an excellent camp and turn some heads, only good things will come from that -- whether it's opportunity here, or opportunity elsewhere. Thanks for the note.

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